'There’s nothing more interesting than emptiness'
In an ideal world, Gregory Crewdson would make the whole world his set. Cities would become Lynchian backdrops, malls would be emptied out and people would simply become props.
“Woman in Bathroom”, by Gregory Crewdson
This is Gregory Crewdson’s world, arguably one of the world’s greatest living photographers. Crewdson captures something on a grand scale that many photographers struggle to do. A domesticity and pedestrian-ness that is at once beautiful and deeply troubling, as you become a voyeur of the most intimate and familiar moments in life. His ethereal aesthetic comes from the perfect juxtaposition of these pawn-like characters with beautiful expanses of nature and that unnerving, mysterious light so characteristic of Crewdson’s imagery.
Crewdson is famous for mobilising whole suburbs and crews of 200 people to bring to life works of such standard, akin to a Hollywood film production. It’s about capturing the uncapturable, what he calls “the moments in between moments”. His new series Cathedral of the Pines arose out of a particularly dark time in life; emerging from a turbulent divorce and holing himself up in a Methodist church. Is this a case of art imitating life? Against the backdrop of a new troubled America, Crewdson embarks on a different path, making his debut film on the advice of some of the industry’s best, no less.
A lot of people are using words like anxiety and chaos to explain the world right now, and your images seem more relevant now than ever – depicting an America that seems adrift and directionless. Does your work feel more relevant now?
It’s interesting because firstly, I think it’s important to say that this entire body of work [Cathedral of the Pines] was made pre-Trump and in fact, there were zero indicators that he would be our next president while making the pictures. But I also feel that generally, my first intention is never to make a political picture or one that has social relevance; I just try to make the most beautiful and mysterious picture that I can. However, once pictures go out into the world they take on their own meaning and relevance so they are reflections of the moment we are in, and whether or not the artist intends that is irrelevant. I think that too often artists take the shortcut by trying to make a picture that is obviously political or didactic in a simple way. In those cases, I’m not particularly interested.
"When Trump won the election...I heard all my students asking over and over again how to continue taking pictures? My answer to that is that it is the only thing you must really do."
Gregroy Crewdson on a new America
You’ve said recently that “the stakes seem to be higher and it’s not getting any easier.” What is your take on the current political climate in America? Is it influencing your work or is it hindering you?
I think it’s both. When I said that the stakes couldn’t be higher I really did mean it. I teach photography at a graduate level and when Trump won the election all my students, as everywhere else, felt completely defeated and were asking questions like how do you carry on? I heard them asking over and over again how to continue taking pictures? My answer to that is that it is the only thing you must really do.
A lot of people seem to focus on the production of your work, the sheer scale of it – blocking off whole streets and using a group of 200 people or more. But to me, that feels secondary because I am more intrigued by the psychology of the work, the surreal isolation and morose quality to it. Why do you think people get so wrapped up in the production?
I’m with you on that. To me, it just comes down to the fact that these are the pictures in my imagination and this is the only way I know how to make those pictures into reality. It sounds really weird but it’s true, it’s the way I’ve learned how to make a picture that feels meaningful to me.
The most important thing is always the picture, and the making of the picture is secondary to that.
And the scale of the production makes it no less authentic. The work is incredible and reflects a lot of our current culture, so why aren’t people asking the real questions?
But how often do people ask the real questions about anything really? The irony is that it’s easier for me personally to talk about the production of the pictures than to talk about the exact meanings of them because that is something that I can’t particularly articulate or describe. I wouldn’t be making the pictures if I could talk about it in a concrete way.
The pictures are about that thing that is elusive and slightly disconnected, alien or sad. In the end that’s the thing that people do relate to in one way or another because we all share that; we all feel slightly removed or dissatisfied in one way or another in the circumstances of our lives.
“The Motel” by Gregory Crewdson, 2014
There seems to be a wide public discourse at the moment about the isolating effects of technology and the divisiveness that it fosters in modern society. I never see someone in your pictures holding an iPhone but often the people are together in the image and not making a meaningful connection with each other. So what is the place of relationships and human connection in your work?
If I were to attempt to suggest a larger meaning of all my pictures, it is this dual thing of feeling slightly detached from the world but also wanting to make some kind of connection at the same time.
My hope is that there is a sense of loneliness but that it’s almost contradicted by the formal beauty of the pictures, like the light, the colours and the atmosphere. I think that makes the pictures more hopeful and it’s that intersection of two things coming together which is at the centre of my pictures.
If it was purely bleak I don’t think I or anyone else would be interested.
"How often do people ask the real questions about anything really?"
Insight and analysis of Gregory Crewdson's work
It is bleak but there is a sense of happy sadness in it. Does that ring true to you?
Yeah, I mean my pictures are about sadness and beauty coming together and I think that’s a very powerful combination. There are some artists that thrive in that arena of total darkness but that’s not really interesting to me. I need some sense of possible transcendence and something larger, but I can’t quite say what that is.
Are you religious at all?
It’s interesting you ask that but I would say no, I’m not religious. I literally live in a Methodist church and Cathedral of the Pines by its very name has a necessarily spiritual component, so the subject matter is of interest to me but I don’t practice any form of religion in any way.
“Father and Son”, by Gregory Crewsdon 2013
Maybe religious is the wrong word, it is more to do with being spiritual because it seems like there is an element of transcendence in your work. Would you agree with that?
Yes, but I would say that it’s in the form of some sort of aesthetics. In my own life I’m a long distance swimmer so during the summers I swim in lakes and open water, and that definitely has a spiritual component to me. It’s a way of finding a connection between the world and myself. I also moved into the church at a point in my life where things were very dark and it made absolute sense that I would then choose to live in a church.
I’m interested to know what kind of music you listen to? I know you used to play in a band called The Speedies.
I think my all time favourite band for a long period now has been Wilco. I think they really capture something that is particularly American and that same cross-section between beauty and sadness.
When I was growing up it was The Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin, and then later on the whole punk movement and now we are part of this post-punk movement. So I would say that I’m very engaged with music all the time.
The first time I came across your work was when I bought your book Beneath The Roses. There is a particular image in the book called Untitled from 2004, that is archetypal of your work in general, with the car in the middle of the street with the door open. It feels as if something either has happened or is about to happen, but never happening in the moment of the image. Are there events in your life that perhaps reflect this idea?
To me, that moment of uncertainty is much more interesting, particularly in photography, which is not particularly good at telling an exact story about something that is happening – we have other ways of processing those kinds of stories, through video or film or writing. Photographs by their very nature are more limited, so it is much more interesting to me to take as a narrative those moments in between moments.
The Shed, 2013. ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
"I mean my pictures are about sadness and beauty coming together and I think that’s a very powerful combination."
One of the things I love about your work is the portrayal of the arbitrary nature of life and the domesticity of it.
There’s nothing more interesting than emptiness and I think one figure in a parking lot is much more interesting than a hundred figures in a parking lot because then you are dealing with the relationship between figures and space, the vastness of the space and how a figure is made to feel almost inconsequential. That’s just the nature of my vision.
Sometimes in your pictures, you focus the spotlight on a convenience store or something really arbitrary and I love that detail because they are the places that no one talks about but everyone visits. What is the beauty that you see in that?
Well there is a profound beauty in that and it has something to do with the iconography of the American landscape, and how something can feel familiar but also strangely alien at the same time.
As I sit here there is a woman sitting at the edge of the mall underneath a tree in front of a Mcdonald’s staring blankly at her cell phone.
Wow, I feel like I was just in one of your photographs.
I’ll try and take a picture and send it to you.
You said that you are currently sitting in a parking lot beside a mall, and there must be a lot of inspiration in the vision of modern America. Malls, for instance, they are emptying out at the moment.
Yes, our local mall appears almost entirely vacant. There are a few larger chains left but it does feel like Dawn of The Dead in there. It’s amazing how quickly that has happened.
I know you are working on a film. You probably can’t say too much about it but the film is a big thing for you so what kind of film you want to make?
Well, the film is going to hopefully feel very much like what we have just been talking about, much more like Beneath The Roses than Cathedral of the Pines in terms of the iconography, the mood and the sense of lighting etc. There will be a lot of vacancy in it, that’s for sure.
I know you are friends with Wes Anderson so will you be asking him for advice?
I already have and his advice is exactly right: just to do it as you see it, that’s the only way to do it.
I think of There Will Be Blood, which I just recently watched again, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. I love it and think it’s a perfect movie, even better than I originally remembered it being. That movie undeniably has resonance with us, not only because it’s a great movie with great characters and beautifully made, but it tells a particularly American story of manifest destiny and corruption.
The thing that intrigues me about you doing a film is that it may spoil the zen-like quality of your work once you put voice and action to it. It’s almost like when someone does a sequel and it ruins the original.
Well, we’ll see. I’m hoping there is a way to sustain it.
Do you think this will be the biggest test of your career?
It’s definitely going to be the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. I’ll only do it if it feels exactly right all the way round but it seems like that’s going to happen.
Cathedral of the Pines is on now at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until 8th October